Tales From the History Room: The Greatest Generation

Our patrons run the gamut of ages, interests and experience, but recently we’ve had some interesting questions here in the “History Room” about events that happened around the 1920s through the 1940s. Many of our “Greatest Generation” patrons are now in their twilight years, and they are thinking more often about the past, both the good times and the bad. When they come to us, we can try to help them gain understanding about long-ago historical events. It is a really good feeling when we are successful in helping them!

We assist patrons with finding lost loves. One gentleman came in knowing the first name and maiden name of an old girlfriend who was born in 1924. He also knew the city in which she was living in the 1930s — New York City.  Well, that’s no problem, I said, NYC only had about 7 million residents at that time, it should be a piece of cake to find her! Not. What I actually said was, this might be a complicated search because we don’t know her married name. I asked him if there was any way he could find that out — by asking someone else or looking among his papers at home? I didn’t hold out much hope, and nor did he. He scoffed at me, saying something like, “Who else is still alive for me to ask at this late date?” But sure enough, he came back a few days later to say that he had remembered her married name and the town she had moved to on Long Island. Luckily she was the only person that I found in the entire United States with that combination of first name and surname. I searched our Ancestry database (available at any computer at any SJCPL location) and found an old address for her. I found that she was not listed in the Social Security Death Index, which probably means she is still living (unless she didn’t collect Social Security). Then I checked an online phone book and found her still listed at the same address I found before. The patron was thrilled! I do hope he comes back in and gives us an update on his search. Will it be a love connection?

We assist patrons in figuring out old family mysteries. A local home-bound patron was interested in the obituary of an uncle who died young in the 1920s in St. Louis, Missouri. She thought he had died under unusual circumstances. I directed her to contact the St. Louis Public Library for the obituary. Then I told her about a resource that she wasn’t aware of. The Missouri State Archives has put all the Missouri State Death certificates for 1910 to 1959 online. Although his name was misspelled and the date was off by a year, I was able to find him in the index and printed off the certificate for her. The death certificate told who his parents were, where he was born, and his cause of death — he was hit by a streetcar. She was very grateful and told me she was sending this information to the man’s great-grandson.

We assist patrons in finding newspaper articles from St. Joseph County newspapers. A patron recently asked my colleague Libby Feil to help him find a picture of him that ran in the newspaper in the 1940s. He did not know the date of the article but had an old copy of it that was literally crumbled into a million pieces. Through Libby’s patient detective work, she was able to find an ad for a movie on the reverse side of the article and researched to find out that the movie had been in the theaters in July of 1944. She sent the man back to work with our colleague Bob Ayers in the Microfilm Room, and between the two of them, they found the picture by reading through all the papers for July 1944. The patron was tickled pink to have a better copy of the photo!

For St. Joseph County newspaper questions, there are several avenues to pursue, depending on the time period and type of article sought. If a patron is seeking a death-related article, we can find those through searching our online Obituary Index and several print indexes to local newspapers from South Bend, Mishawaka, Walkerton and North Liberty. If the patron is seeking a South Bend Tribune article dated after March 1998, we should be able to find it in our South Bend Tribune Online Archives (available at any SJCPL location and from home with a valid SJCPL library card). If the patron is seeking a pre-1998 local article, when an approximate date is known, and they are willing to conduct a day-by-day search of the microfilmed copies of the newspaper, the article can often be found. Without an approximate date, these type of searches would become tedious and possibly fruitless for the patron. There is no comprehensive index to the South Bend Tribune prior to 1998. We have several partial indexes that cover certain topics and certain time periods, so do check with us to see if the item you seek has perhaps been indexed.

We look forward to serving you in Local & Family History Services. You will find us on the 2nd floor of the Main Library. We can also be reached by telephone at 282-4621 and by email at local.history@sjcpl.org.

One Comment

  1. Sara, thanks for one amazing story after the other. You, Kevin and Libby seem to be creating the new SJCPL reality show: “Family History Detectives!”